Immigration views - how the marginal has become mainstream

The desire for political parties to sound tough on immigration does not come from any factual evidence of immigration having deleterious consequences.

Steve Garner
2 April 2015

Flickr/(Mick Baker)rooster. Some rights reserved.

In the two preceding articles (1, 2), I have written about the frames through which most of our white UK interviewees see immigration. They are typical of white UK demography in that they live in local areas with few BME residents. They feel that resources go unfairly to migrants (and other ethnic minorities) who are not entitled to access them because they have not paid enough contributions. Political parties are part of the political discourse on immigration summarized in the previous articles, which pushes public understandings in one particular direction: immigration is a problem to be managed or resolved.

The frames through which immigration is engaged with; unfairness, political correctness gone mad, integration and repressed Englishness, generate a set of viewpoints that produces white UK people as a beleaguered minority requiring remedial state actions to restore fairness. Until quite recently, this last point used to be the exclusive province of far-right populist parties, but now seems to be a recognisable feature of the mainstream political landscape. This is a harmful trend,  making it likely that immigration becomes an increasingly divisive and emotive issue in the future.

A bigger picture

Of course, the rise of populist political movements claiming that outsiders have usurped their place at the table is a story that extends well beyond the UK.  From Texas to Canberra, via Stockholm, a politics of white victimhood is gaining momentum. In the May 2014 EU elections, anti-immigration parties enjoyed the biggest rise in support (especially in Western Europe). In the UK, the space for such politics was fragmented into four; UKIP, the BNP; English Democrats and An Independence from Europe. These parties totalled around 4.9 million votes, roughly 31% of the electorate. The ballot paper I voted on contained eight options, including these four: seven of the eight (including Labour, Conservative and Lib Dem) argue for more restrictions and controls on immigration. Immigration is framed as a social issue of invasion and resource absorption - as if it were not sought at all by the State, and as if the UK was not party to an agreement that allows EU nationals to live and work in each other’s countries without requiring visas. This one-dimensional picture is not effectively challenged, either by the parties of the centre-Right or the social democratic centre-Left.

Polls: measuring and sustaining hostility?

Since the beginning of the 21st century, opinion polls on immigration have demonstrated clear trends toward a pattern of rising antipathy. A variety of polls have shown that immigration has ascended the political agenda, and that a clear majority of UK people want immigration stopped or reversed. However, most of the polls use the term ‘immigration’ in their questions, allowing people to say what they think about whatever immigration means in their heads. The point is that immigration is made up of categories made in legislation, of people with very different rights and options as well as from different places. This is a really important issue: immigration from the EU (virtually open) cannot be spoken of in the same way as that from outside the EU (very restricted), yet the two are casually mixed in discussions as if they have the same contours and stakes for those involved. Moreover, when more sophisticated polls query what people mean, interesting and more nuanced findings emerge.

The immigration section of the British Social Attitudes survey in 2011 found that people were mainly against illegal immigration, and didn’t consider students as migrants. They also preferred skilled to unskilled migration and were less bothered by Eastern European migration than by Muslim and African migration. I would say that offering respondents pairs of choices that are not realistic binary options in the field of policy-making (it’s not actually either/or in any of those cases) as that BSA poll does, makes for a contrived set of choices. Even so, the poll’s conclusions have implications. The discourse on immigration as an abstract idea covering so many different circumstances necessarily misleads. However, we can see that when immigration is broken down into some of its components, a different picture appears, to do with skills, country of origin and reason for migration. It is also clear that immigration by Muslims and/or non-white migrants is generally perceived as more problematic (another EU-wide phenomenon seen in a number of polls). We have suggested that this distinction might be very locally contingent. Small urban and rural places where Eastern Europeans are concentrated might reveal another pattern.

I need to reiterate that the starting point of this is that there are plenty of patterns about disadvantage in a period of increasing polarisation of wealth, but no evidence of patterns of racial discrimination against white UK people because they are white. Claiming identification with this group as a marginalised one in need of political action to restore equality is a political stance.

Mainstream parties have power

The media’s fascination and repulsion with UKIP in the last year or so continues in the tradition of focusing on right-wing groups, not only as entertainment but as deviant. They become the ‘bad’ white people, so unlike ‘us’, the audience. It is easy to vilify these groups (and many individuals do the media’s work for them). Their ideas reflect many elements of the four frames that I have picked up. However, the obvious needs to be stated: it is the mainstream parties that actually hold power and produce immigration policy, welfare policy, housing policy, etc, and have best access to the media.

Either the Conservatives or Labour have been in power since 1921 (with all the caveats about the National Government in the 1930s). They therefore impact directly on immigration. New Labour created 84 immigration offences in the 1997-2010 period (compared to the 70 created in the previous 91 years) and introduced private-sector involvement in immigration detention and extradition. This built upon the trend toward more immigration checks (carried out by untrained people who are not civil servants) started during the Major administration.

Moreover, Conservative and Labour administrations contribute to the long-term context against which the intensifying claims of unfairness in resource distribution are made. Having narrowed between 1911 and 1981, the gap between richest and poorest widened again from that point on, as a direct result of government policies on welfare, tax, pensions, privatisation and other public spending.

A cross-party consensus on restricting immigration from some former colonies emerged in the 1960s, and another has now taken shape: be tough on immigration. Or at least sound tough. Setting unrealisable targets on cutting net immigration just adds to the impression that immigration is ‘out of control’. The tough stance is not derived from a priori evidence of deleterious consequences but because the public appetite is for immigration control. This race for toughness has fuelled a shift in the political centre ground. The dominant narrative says immigration is out of control. Instead of attempting to put forward alternative narratives that reflect the multidimensional realities of immigration, the main parties actually borrow and slightly modify the frames of the populist nationalist parties to bid for voters.

Conservative, Labour and the Lib Dems now place immigration high on their agendas and state objectives without contextualising them. Labour for instance, deploys a frame that says people have reasonable sources for concern to do with immigration, without explaining how immigration leads directly to it.

The combined effect of the discourse and the changing economic backdrop is to profoundly alter the context in which people make sense of ‘immigration’.  While there may be similarities between ideas expressed in 1964 (at the Smethwick by-election) and in 2015, the context is utterly different. We are fifty years further on in the national conversation about immigration. The departure point for discussion has shifted from a balance between ‘immigration solves and causes problems’ to a landslide in favour of ‘immigration causes problems’.

The politics of redress?

Typically, politics of equality are located around actual grievances (whether material or cultural or both), and collective identities are deployed to move toward redress. In the discourse on immigration, a sizeable minority of the electorate is mobilised by the idea that the white UK majority is at a disadvantage by dint of being white. Indeed, UKIP have already stated that laws on racial discrimination are no longer necessary because it no longer exists. So this perspective sees a pendulum as having swung from discrimination against ethnic minorities to discrimination against the white UK majority in the past 40 years or so.

Moreover, a constitutive element of this disadvantage is political correctness, which apparently stops us from talking openly about immigration. Yet, we in the UK cannot stop talking openly about immigration. It’s hard to imagine a topic discussed more frequently or more openly in recent years. Additionally, as we noted in relation to integration, the discussion subsumes ‘race’ as well as other topics. Grievances that are not addressed in terms of other aspects of identity end up packed into the immigration discourse instead. Incorrectly diagnosed grievance creates false victims and false perpetrators.

Where we are at?

This blaming game is very seductive, but it is injecting poison into formal politics. Although the claim of disadvantage might be expressed in claims of unfairness, or wanting to ‘get Britain back’, ‘race’ is definitely in the mix. My eldest daughter reports disdainfully from school that the joke of the day is that Zayn Malik left One Direction to join ISIS. As a rough measure of where we are at, our popular culture doesn’t lie. If your surname is something like Malik, it’s easy to move from the most integrated position imaginable to potential fifth columnist through the medium of comedy (a field where the repressed returns). Meanwhile, one million people sign a petition in support of another multi-millionaire, Jeremy Clarkson, constructed as a victim of the politically-correct BBC elite.

We have arrived at a significant threshold for democratic politics. We might get the governments we deserve, but do we get the debates we deserve? The one on immigration is doing all of us a disservice, and the political parties are actively exacerbating the situation.

A definition of political correctness might be ‘a restrictive frame highlighting one way of seeing the world, and hindering critical scrutiny of that viewpoint’. In that case, the dominant form of political correctness includes the contemporary immigration discourse: a discourse that claims it can’t be voiced, while impoverishing discussion of the power discrepancies fuelling the anxieties of many. Our political imaginations are consistently being channelled down a path that leads us back to immigration as the source of our problems.


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